The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers

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Overview

With his usual storytelling flair and unparalleled research, noted historian Thomas Fleming examines the relationships between the Founding Fathers and the women who were at the center of their lives. They were the mothers who powerfully shaped their sons' visions of domestic life, from hot-tempered Mary Ball Washington to promiscuous Rachel Lavien, Hamilton's mother. Lovers and wives played even more critical roles. We learn of the youthful Washington's tortured love for the coquettish Sarah Fairfax, a close ...

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Overview

With his usual storytelling flair and unparalleled research, noted historian Thomas Fleming examines the relationships between the Founding Fathers and the women who were at the center of their lives. They were the mothers who powerfully shaped their sons' visions of domestic life, from hot-tempered Mary Ball Washington to promiscuous Rachel Lavien, Hamilton's mother. Lovers and wives played even more critical roles. We learn of the youthful Washington's tortured love for the coquettish Sarah Fairfax, a close friend's wife; of Franklin's two ?wives,? one in London and one in Philadelphia; of how lonely, deeply unhappy Abigail kept home and family together for years on end during Adams's long absences; of Hamilton's adulterous betrayal of his wife and their eventual reconciliation; of how the brilliant Madison, jilted by a flirtatious fifteen-year-old, went on to marry the effervescent Dolley, who helped make this shy man into a popular president. Jefferson's controversial relationship with Sally Hemings is also examined, reinterpreting where his heart truly lay.

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Editorial Reviews

Justin Moyer
JFK had Marilyn Monroe, and Bill Clinton had Monica, but that doesn't mean 20th-century presidents had all the fun. "Knowing and understanding the women in their lives adds pathos and depth to the public dimensions of the founding fathers' political journeys," Thomas Fleming writes in this well-researched peek into the boudoirs of America's political architects.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In this solid, sometimes titillating account, novelist and historian Fleming (The Perils of Peace) draws parallels to today's media obsession with our leaders' sex lives. The media were obsessed at the nation's beginning, too. As president, Washington suffered torrents of abuse, sometimes personal, but his marriage to Martha remained happy, although unconvincing efforts to find affairs, illegitimate children and slave mistresses persist to this day. The most genial founding father, Benjamin Franklin, had a shockingly bad family life with a jealous wife and dreadful relations with his son. Despite his brilliance, Alexander Hamilton behaved foolishly with women, triggering America's first public sex scandal. Fleming rocks no historical boats describing John and Abigail Adams's legendary love and agrees that Dolly brought color into the life of shy, intellectual James Madison. Jefferson's wife died young, and he focused his love on the often unhappy lives of two daughters. Examining the controversy over his slave, Sally Hemings, Fleming says evidence that he fathered her children remains inconclusive. Showing the more human and sometimes unlikable sides of our founders, the author writes good history, debunking more scandal than he confirms. (Nov)
Library Journal
Fleming (The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown) takes a peek at the personal and family lives of six key American figures—George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—exploring their relationships with girlfriends, wives, children, extended family members, and, in some cases, extramarital lovers and quasi-lovers. Replete with assumptions and wild guesses, this book breaks no new ground in historical scholarship, merely providing general readers with an accessible overview of what has long been known to scholars—that the fallible Founding Fathers depended on the love and emotional support of family and others to achieve their personal and political goals. Jefferson and Sally Hemings garner special attention, with a tiresomely in-depth and opinionated examination of scholarly views and scientific inquiries surrounding this centuries-old controversy. The book's one redeeming chapter—a provocative psychological examination of Dolley and James Madison's marriage—is also the briefest and most underdeveloped. VERDICT Tacky and pointless, Fleming's lowbrow latest may have marginal appeal as recreational reading for undiscerning fans of early American history's most familiar faces. Students and scholars can certainly skip it.—Douglas King, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia
Kirkus Reviews
Popular historian Fleming (The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown, 2007, etc.) takes a rosy look at the enduring marriages of Washington, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison, despite some dalliances, separations and extreme job pressure. The author is determined to restore the honor to these great men, whose lives have been dissected ceaselessly for evidence of human fallibility-especially Jefferson, whose relationship with his slave Sally Hemings probably resulted in several children. Fleming doesn't buy it, and he's holding out for the results of DNA testing. Instead he underscores Jefferson's tender devotion to Martha Skelton, who died after ten years of marriage in 1782, leaving him with only their daughter to comfort him. Washington, despite a youthful rejection, made a spectacular match in the wealthy widow Martha Custis and was put in charge of her 17,000-acre Virginia estate. The evidence shows he grew to love his sweet-tempered, practical wife, despite their inability to have children, while she found him a manly pillar of strength and a good stepfather to her children. Franklin had an "ungovernable sex drive" and married his landlord's daughter Deborah, who was then forced to raise his illegitimate son as her own. She did not accompany him to Paris as emissary, and after she died he was a great favorite of the ladies, even proposing marriage to his beloved Madame Helvetius. In the chapters on Adams and Madison, their strong wives take over the narratives with a presidential agenda of their own-Abigail Adams as a protofeminist, and Dolly Madison as an inimitable hostess. Hamilton married a rich man's daughter, flirted with hissister-in-law, indulged in a seduction by a speculator's wife and was blackmailed by the husband. He died scrambling to repair the marriage and, we are assured, racked by guilt. Applying the kid-glove treatment to his subjects, the author doesn't unearth much that hasn't been picked over before.
Jay Winik
“Thomas Fleming is one of our most interesting scholars of the Revolutionary period, and in his insightful latest work he does not disappoint. Focusing on the wives and women of the founding fathers, Intimate Lives is thoroughly fresh, frequently fun, at times touching, and always fascinating. A significant achievement.”
Brenda Wineapple
“With his ample gifts as a novelist and his brilliant historical reach, the esteemed Thomas Fleming never disappoints...A remarkable achievement-- and hard to put down.”
Peter R. Henriques
“Tom Fleming is a rare combination - a fine historian and a fine writer. His assessment of George Washington’s relationships with Sally Fairfax and Martha Custis is right on target.”
Curled Up with a Good Book
This is better than any history book you’ve ever read.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061139130
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/9/2010
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 637,448
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Fleming is the author of more than forty books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently, The Perils of Peace. He has been the president of the Society of American Historians and of PEN American Center. Mr. Fleming is a frequent guest on C-SPAN, PBS, A&E, and the History Channel. He lives in New York City.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction xi

Book 1 George Washington

The Agonies of Honor 3

Partner In Love and Life 19

From Great Somebody to Lady Washington 36

The Other George Washington Scandals 58

Book 2 Benjamin Franklin

The Sins of the Father 73

The Oldest Revolutionary 91

Mon Cher Papa 102

Book 3 John Adams

An Amorous Puritan Finds a Wife 125

Portia's Dubious Diplomat 141

Second Banana Blues 162

Party Of Two 177

Remembering Some Other Ladies 194

Book 4 Alexander Hamilton

Bastard Son and Wary Lover 209

The Woman in the Middle 224

Love's Secret Triumph 244

Book 5 Thomas Jefferson

Romantic Voyager 259

The Traumas of Happiness 271

Head Versus Heart 292

The Wages of Fame 309

If Jefferson Is Wrong, Is America Wrong? 328

Book 6 James Madison

A Shy Genius Makes a Conquest 355

Partners In Fame 369

How To Save a Country 388

Appendix: The Erosion of Jefferson's Image in the American Mind 409

Notes 417

Index 439

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 20 )
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  • Posted December 29, 2009

    Fascinating revisit to U.S. history

    Absorbing. A very different look at the founding fathers. A great read as each biography is substantial and stands independently.
    Humanizes the subjects. Perhaps the most interesting chapter relates
    how Jefferson has been re-invented by numerous biographers in the
    183 years since his death; it makes one think of Harry Truman whose
    poll standings made it impossible for him to run for re-election in
    1952, but is now considered a "near great" president. "History"
    is not an absolute, but is constantly changing. Well researched. Fleming is a past president of the Society of American Historians.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 5, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    The Inti­mate Lives of the Found­ing Fathers by Thomas Flem­ing

    The Inti­mate Lives of the Found­ing Fathers by Thomas Flem­ing is a his­tory book which tells about the lives of six famous men from the per­spec­tive of their rela­tion­ship with the women in their lives. I do love books which tells us more his­tory from the “trenches”, after all, there are very few big events which aren’t made of small, per­sonal moments.

    The Inti­mate Lives of the Found­ing Fathers by Thomas Flem­ing is what one might call “his­tory light”. While there was no new infor­ma­tion revealed in the book, it is a won­der­ful intro­duc­tion to more seri­ous works which deal with the Found­ing Fathers, their poli­cies and how the rela­tion­ships with other influ­enced their work (which still has ram­i­fi­ca­tions to this day) and their policies.

    Mr. Flem­ing does not view the Found­ing Fathers as untouch­able his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, but as men of flesh and blood who lived, loved, laughed, hurt and got­ten hurt. The author’s research is excel­lent and his writ­ing style is enjoyable.

    Those who only learned about these six giants of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics in school are bound to get a bit of shock. George Wash­ing­ton had a crush on this neighbor’s wife, Alexan­der Hamil­ton com­mit­ted flat out adul­tery, Ben­jamin Franklin had a child out of wed­lock and left his wife to frolic in Paris.

    While the men of this book are in the title, the real stars are the women, espe­cially Abi­gail Adams and Dol­ley Madi­son. These two for­mi­da­ble women seemed to have an equal mar­i­tal rela­tion­ship in today’s stan­dards. Both James Madi­son and John Adams relied on their wives for strength and advice. The let­ter exchange between John and Abi­gail Adams shows a remark­able woman who could hold her own in deep philo­soph­i­cal and polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion with her hus­band and a match to his wit which is only recently began to be appre­ci­ated. Mr. Flem­ing calls those two first ladies “Pres­i­den­tresses”, a term which some might use (mostly not in a com­pli­men­tary fash­ion) to other first ladies who seemed to call the shots behind the scenes (Edith Wil­son, Eleanor Roo­sevelt and more recently Hillary Clinton).

    A whole sec­tion is ded­i­cated to the tire­some sub­ject of Thomas Jefferson’s rela­tion­sh­iop with his slave Sally Hem­ings. The author seems to think that the affair never hap­pened, he might be right as he bring forth very con­vinc­ing, well researched rea­sons as to why (regard­less of the recent plethora of soap-opera type TV hype). How­ever, I find myself amused by argu­ment for either side in this affair. First, I sim­ply don’t care about an affair which a hap­pened 250 years ago, sec­ond I’m more inter­ested in what the affair might or might not mean in the grand scheme of things.

    The Inti­mate Lives of the Found­ing Fathers is a fas­ci­nat­ing glimpse into the pri­vate lives of these famous Amer­i­cans. The per­sonal tid­bits are, for me, what makes his­tory come alive from the past.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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